In the nineties Jim Carrey’s name was like a stamp of approval, guaranteeing near to instant box office success. When it came to outlandish slapstick comedies Carrey had the market cornered, becoming an unconventional A-list celebrity in the process. That once boundless and vivacious actor now seems like little more than a distant memory and whilst his ‘serious’ roles have propelled him into the consciousness of a more astute collection of film fanatics, his penchant for comedy has never since reached those once dizzying heights. Yet whilst Carrey’s name coupled with these entertaining, flightless birds may attract an audience of nostalgic Ace Ventura fans, Mr Popper’s Penguins target audience is undoubtedly of a younger demographic.
Inspired by a 1938’s children’s book of the same name, Mr Popper’s Penguins regurgitates the formulaic values of the importance of family over work and money. Carrey play Mr Popper, a snake tongued salesman working in property procurement, who lives for Monday mornings and the satisfying sight of fresh ink on a newly acquired contract. His career has afforded him a luxury lifestyle and an apartment of equalling magnificence yet he remains estranged from his two children except for the ‘magical alternate weekends’ he spends with them. His kids epitomise the stereotypical roles of family movie children. His son is a fresh faced but emotionally fragile boy who retains an endearingly optimistic view on the world that’s ever present in his constant wisecracking remarks. He’s the perfect embodiment of innocence and a mirror image of the young Mr Popper we’re presented with at the film’s outset. This youthful exuberance needs something to react against and this catalyst comes in the shape of Popper’s daughter, a teenage girl with more angst and rebellion flowing through her blood than the entire audience of a sold out Linkin Park show.
After a minor hiccup whilst picking up his kids where a seemingly miniscule error gets blown out of proportion by his feisty daughter, Popper ends up spending the weekend alone. This monotonous calm is soon broken with the delivery of a crate containing a souvenir from his recently departed father. The unconventional gift inside is a real life penguin and as you can imagine, all manner of chaos ensues. As if that wasn’t enough madness for one film, further penguins arrive at Popper’s door after a mildly xenophobic case of miscommunication over the phone whilst attempting to return his original house guest. This once pristine and immaculately presented flat is soon transformed into an artificial snow-capped urban zoo. However, despite his initial distaste for these winged creatures and the mess they create he soon becomes attached to their idiosyncratic behaviour and their surprising ability to bring him closer to his estranged family. The resulting revelation that love is to be more highly cherished than work culminates in a drastic transformation in this once corporately driven man.
Replace these mischievous penguins with a pathological inclination to always speak the truth and you’d have a film which feels very much like a schmaltzy Liar Liar Christmas sequel. Somehow the film does manage to ascend above this rather cynical, yet glaringly obvious observation into a well rounded family movie which does just enough to hold parents attention whilst simultaneously managing to keep younger audience members entertained for the full duration of the film.
From an outrageously overdramatic set piece involving some spectacular penguin acrobatics within the Guggenheim museum to Mr Popper’s delightful assistant and her peculiarly pleasant penchant for alliteration, there’s plenty here for younger viewers to enjoy. However, whilst Mr Popper’s Penguins is an assured piece of family film making it isn’t without its flaws. Whilst these apparently ‘valuable’ lessons go by without too much melodrama it still feels preachy, like having the same old, tired message forcibly crammed down your gullet. Understandably Mr Popper’s Penguins demands that you accept a certain amount of whimsy to truly enjoy it’s admittedly ludicrous premise but there are moments when the film’s villainous zookeeper does have a point, Mr Popper shouldn’t be allowed to keep such wild animals in his flat. The decision to make a flailing pantomime villain out of what should be the film’s grounding voice of reason is somewhat of a misstep.
Those of you who never bought into Dumb and Dumber or Ace Ventura’s style of humour and found Carrey’s 90’s films all too laboured and abrasive should steer clear. Carrey’s performance here is suitably amplified for a pre-teen audience who we’ve been led to believe demand their entertainment be loud and over embellished. This misguided and patronizing approach towards children has resulted in a recent trend, which, has seen skilful storytelling diluted in favour of CGI animals and adolescent pop stars. Whilst Mr Popper’s Penguins initially seems like a valiant attempt to prevent this negative effect on family filmmaking, with its real life penguins and A list casting, it soon slides into familiar territory.
There’s no doubt kids will love this jovial romp and its incredibly formulaic approach never steers off course. Parents will also find themselves pleasantly surprised by the film’s more touching moments but ultimately Mr Popper’s Penguins is little more than a quick injection of entertainment with little to no lasting impact. The film’s bizarre summer theatrical release (considering its very glacial and snow capped surroundings) is surely so the DVD can be released in time for Christmas but with 4 months to go and the fickle nature of children’s entertainment, don’t be surprised if Mr Popper’s Penguins doesn’t appear on too many lists to Santa.
Mr Popper’s Penguins is in cinemas 5th August 2011.
Director: Mark Waters
Stars: Jim Carrey, Carla Gugin, Angela Lansbury
Runtime: 94 min